Friday, November 30, 2012

Mercersburgism, John Frame, Theonomy, etc.


If Steven Wedgeworth is accurate (see when he writes, “Another difference [between Modern Theology and Mercersburg Theology] is in their central idea. Modern theology makes the atonement or death of Christ, Mercersburg the person of Christ or the incarnation, its central idea. The importance of this difference can be seen in the fact, for instance, that the atonement itself, or justification by faith, cannot be maintained successfully by adopting the former. According to it, the atonement is made to rest primarily on what Christ has done, not on what he is. It apprehends Christ as a mere individual, God and man in one person, it is true, but yet as a mere individual. Mercersburg theology apprehends Christ as the embodiment of the universal life of humanity, the second Adam or federal head of the race’ and his obedience and death receive their atoning merits from this fact.”

If accurate Mercersburg theology as well as “Modern Theology” comes athwart something I encountered in New Testament Introduction in regard to the Synoptic Problem, it was never a problem for the first generations of Christians. They didn’t have the whole Bible, the New Testament or very likely more than one of the gospels. Neither were they concerned about the theology of the atonement. They were focused almost completely upon the Resurrection, the Easter message: Christ is Risen. For if he is risen then he is as he is the first born among many brethren; which includes us.

Others I read seem to think that Mercersburg Theology was headed in the same direction as Neo-Orthodoxy. Barth took the wind out of their sails because he did it better than they did. I have nothing against Barth btw, one of my few criticisms of Van Til is that he was too harsh on some philosophers and theologians that I admire, R. G. Collingwood for example, but also Barth . . . but whenever I’ve dabbled at reading Barth he is saying something that bears out Van Til’s criticism.

I read Frame’s Evangelical Reunion, Denominations and the Body of Christ back in 1993 just at the time that my OPC pastor asked me  to teach a study on “The Church.” I was heavily influenced by Frame’s ideas on Evangelical Reunion no doubt included some of those ideas in my talk.  Afterward an OPC missionary who happened to be visiting took me to task: There could be no merging with other denominations because there was something wrong with everyone of them.

“What about Christ’s prayer that all those in his Church would be ‘one’?” I asked him.

“That’s all well and good, but we can’t sacrifice sound theology for the sake of a merger. Why not go all the way and merge with the secular world. A merger should never be accomplished at the expense of sound theology.”

This missionary didn’t convince me, but neither did I convince him. Frame seems to have met with the same reaction on a larger scale. His enemies seem to be taking him to task for the same sorts of things. I haven’t pursued Frame’s idea in recent years, but Christ’s prayer is still out there. Something is wrong with the Universal Church if it doesn’t pursue reunion.

I thought about this matter when I began attending the EPC. What, for example, would prevent the merger of the OPC and the EPC. As far as I could tell from reading the EPC charter and listening to the pastor, the only differences were the use by the EPC of modern hymns and women elders, both of which were left open to individual EPC churches.

In regard to Mercersburg, I have been impressed by some of the publications coming out of Princeton & so looked especially at (and finally ordered) the following:

Speculative Theology and Common-Sense Religion : Mercersburg and the Conservative Roots of American Religion by Linden J. DeBie (2008, Paperback)


Evangelicals in nineteenth-century America had a headquarters at Princeton. Charles Hodge never expected that a former student of Princeton and his own replacement during his hiatus in Europe, John W. Nevin, would lead the German Reformed Church's seminary in a new, and in his mind, destructive direction. The two, along with their institutions, would clash over philosophy and religion, producing some of the best historical theology ever written in the United States. The clash was broad, influencing everything from hermeneutics to liturgy, but at its core was the philosophical antagonism of Princeton's Scottish common-sense perspective and the German speculative method employed by Mercersburg. Both Princeton and Mercersburg were the cautious and critical beneficiaries of a century of European Protestant science, philosophy, and theology, and they were intent on adapting that legacy to the American religious context. For Princeton, much of the new European thought was suspect. In contrast, Mercersburg embraced a great deal of what the Continent offered. Princeton followed a conservative path, never straying far from the foundation established by Locke. They enshrined an evangelical perspective that would become a bedrock for conservative Protestants to this day. In contrast, Nevin and the Mercersburg school were swayed by the advances in theological science made by Germany's mediating school of theology. They embraced a churchy idealism called evangelical catholicism and emphatically warned that the direction of Princeton and with it Protestant American religion and politics, would grow increasingly subjective, thus divided and absorbed with individual salvation. They cautioned against the spirit of the growing evangelical bias toward personal religion as it led to sectarian disunity and they warned evangelicals not to confuse numerical success with spiritual success. In contrast, Princeton was alarmed at the direction of European philosophy and theology and they resisted Mercersburg with what today continues to be the fundamental teachings of evangelical theology. Princeton's appeal was in its common-sense philosophical moorings, which drew rapidly industrializing America into its arms. Mercersburg countered with a philosophically defended, churchly idealism based on a speculative philosophy that effectively critiqued what many to this day find divisive and dangerous about America's current Religious Right.

In regard to Kuyper, it seems to me he was a natural ally of both Theonomy and the Escondido Theology. He believed very strongly in the Christian’s role in modern States. I do as well, but could never embrace Kuyper, although he was urged upon me by the first OPC (sort of) pastor we had in Moreno valley. I can’t recall his name but he was ordained in some denomination not approved of by the OPC (or something line that); which didn’t bother him because he was semi-retired and when they cut him loose he retired completely.

In regard to Theonomy I was attracted to it initial and read Rushdoony’’s Institutes, for  if we considered a future in which the Postmillennial time arrived where everyone was Christian (some nominally but most sincerely) then we would be able to create laws consistent with Christianity. What sorts of laws should they be? 

However, I didn’t get very far with this before learning that the Theonomists thought they were in position to know what these laws should be and  furthermore had decided to urge them at once upon the Church and even the nation at large.

A failure Theonomy but also of several other points of view, including the Escondido School, is a lack of appreciation for the fact that God does not create language or societies out of whole cloth. He deals with people as they are and with what they know and believe. Thus, the Mosaic food laws, for example, were appropriate for the people that Moses led into the Wilderness but aren’t appropriate to subsequent social situations.

God deals with people where they are, using their language and their societies as they are. He does not urge a change of language or society. I read Dabney’s biography of Stonewall Jackson in which is a very well-reasoned defense of Slavery. The fact that Paul didn’t urge the abolition of Slavery, I believe, doesn’t mean that he, let alone God, was advocating that economic practice. God’s (and Paul’s) interests lay elsewhere.

The same sort of thing is true, in my opinion, of Paul’s injunctions against women in the Church in his day. That society was a patriarchal society in which women were not educated. But in these modern times women receive the same education as men; so in my opinion Paul’s injunction against women in the church was not intended to be a universal principle. In looking at Paul’s concern we might very well embrace a universal principle against poorly qualified people ascending to important positions of responsibility in any modern denomination.

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